Connecting people with nature: an interview with Gregory Lu, co-founder of Estonian vertical farming solution Natufia Kitchen Garden

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Natufia Kitchen Garden by Natufia Labs is a vertical farming solution from Estonia. In 2018, Natufia Labs was a part of Techstars Dubai Accelerator Opening Class and closed a $1.2-million seed round led by Butterfly Ventures, Techstars, and the Dubai-based family office Ginco Investments.

Co-founder of Natufia Labs Gregory Lu told us about the design concept of Natufia Kitchen Garden, the importance of plant well-being and the perks of founding a start-up in Estonia.

Natufia Kitchen Garden was founded in Estonia, a country with 1,3 million citizens and four unicorn start-ups. What makes this country so successful?

Estonia is known for its level of digital development. It is friendly from the administrative point of view: you can easily open a bank account or sign a contract. It is easy to register a business, hire foreign employees and get them work permits in a couple of days.

Contrary to common belief, Estonian government does not provide financial help, grants of money loans to start-ups and is pretty straightforward about it. Companies have to look for private investors or get financial help from abroad. However, I find it beneficial, that we do not need to pay corporate tax.

What is your professional background, how did you come up with an idea of Natufia?

I used to work in the property business, created different companies and in 2010 went out of the game to pre-retire. I bought an olive plantation in Sicily to produce olive oil and tomato sauce. That is when I got involved in the food business. Unfortunately, I got confronted with a need to use pesticides which contradicted my view on healthy food.

I was living in Estonia where the weather conditions are not so favorable for growing fresh produce and was gradually coming to an idea of an indoor farm. Initially, I was not ready to go back into business, but four years ago I changed my mind and asked my co-founder Lauri Kapp to join me for the technical part of my project.

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In 2014, we built a basic prototype and showed it at a few European fairs to evaluate the initial reception. As it was pretty good, I invested in R&D and hired a team of engineers, software, botanists and biologists. As I was the main investor, there was no external pressure for quick results, so we took our time, did a few hands-on researches, built dozens of prototypes for hospitality industry and private users, worked with user feedback and kept iterating.

Once we got a fully functional product, we set up the manufacturing, quality control, licensing, sales network and finally made an open launch in the end of 2018.

How many Natufia machines are out there right now? Where are they manufactured?

We have distributed 25 machines so far. Our current production capacity is 10 machines so far, but we hope to increase it to 250 machines per year. While we manufacture our Kitchen Gardens in Estonia, many of our suppliers are based in different countries: Germany, France, Italy, Latvia, the United States and Dubai. 99% of our machines are sold abroad, most of them in France and the United States.

Are your machines customizable? can you change the size or the setup depending on customers’ needs?

At the moment we only have one size and one model. We have worked a lot on the design and features to get it close to perfection, therefore we are not planning to offer other models and modifications at the moment.

Our model is adapted for rentability, so users can choose themselves what they want to grow: plants or microgreens. Chefs prefer having plates with microgreens, private customers grow strawberries, cherry tomatoes, mini cucumbers, cilantro, dill and other plants in the pots.

We also started working with high-end SPA centres and osteopaths that use plants for body clean-ups. They make teas with fresh cilantro, mint, sage, stevia or chamomile. Depletion of vitamins in greens is happening very fast, you cannot compare a freshly cut leafy green with a 3-day-old salad from the store. And for the well-being industry it is crucial to use the whole potential of a plant.

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How many types of plants are you offering right now?

We have tested over 110 types of seeds but currently offer 30 types, mostly for logistical reasons. Our goal is to list 60-70 plants in our store, not sure we need to go higher. We will prioritize rare plants that you cannot easily find in the store and superfoods that lose their power by the time they get to the store shelves.

Customers can opt into a subscription model and receive a monthly box of seeds from us. We also send our clients empty compatible pots so they could experiment with their own seeds.

Natufia Kitchen Garden does not look like any other vertical farming unit I have seen before. What is the idea behind its design?

In a classic vertical farm, all the plants are sitting in one big container. From my point of view, these blocks look very industrial and medical. The purpose of our machine was to have a design aspect so people would like to put it in their kitchens.

We worked with local designers from Estonia to create a natural environment for the plants: they are exposed to wind flow and are not too close to each other. We don’t want to build something similar to a farm with chicken that sit in small cages. The well-being of plants and connecting people with nature are the key ideas behind Natufia Kitchen Garden.

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There is also music playing inside your machines.

Studies prove, that plants react to sound and vibration. We play them classical and ambient music as well as sounds of nature to make them feel well, calm them and help them grow.

Do you need an app to operate the Kitchen Garden?

Actually, the machine is fully autonomous and can operate on its own for about three months. and has a preset regime. Real-time data analysis allows it to quickly process environmental changes and adjust its settings accordingly. You just need to put seeds in a plate or a pot and refill the nutrients. The app is helpful if you plant to grow plants in a custom setup or want to monitor specific parameters, otherwise the machine does everything by itself.

How do you support the customers if they face technical difficulties?

The clients can ask us for a proactive support and connect their machines to receive software updates and get tested for problems. It is included in the service. In case something is wrong, for example the water source is disconnected, we receive an alert and contact the customer. Our software helps us understand remotely, where the problem is coming from. The machine was built in such a way that some repairs, such as pump cleaning, can operated at distance via the Wi-Fi.

What are your impressions from Techstars Dubai?

I had quite some experience in business so was not hoping to learn lots of new things. However, I truly enjoyed the atmosphere of positive engagement without judgement. We treated each other like colleagues, not competitors, and received a lot of actionable feedback from fellow entrepreneurs and mentors. In Dubai we found investors, connections and a potential market that needs our product.

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